The Davy Crockett Recoilless Rifle - A Portable Nuke That Would Have Killed Its Operators

When one thinks of 1960s nuclear weapons, one likely thinks of bombs carried by huge strategic bombers like the American B-52 Stratofortress or the then-Soviet Tu-95 Bear. You likely don't imagine portable nuclear weapons unless you play a lot of the "Fallout" games or perhaps "Metal Gear Solid." However, that's exactly what the Davy Crockett Recoilless Rifle was when it was first formulated in 1958. It was all of the power of nuclear weapons with the portability of a regular piece of artillery. 

As wacky as it looks, the Davy Crockett wasn't too much of a technological innovation. It was simply a cannon with a nuke on the end. It was, in theory, designed to be fired mounted on the back of a Jeep or set up on a tripod. It doesn't take someone like J. Robert Oppenheimer or a nuclear scientist to see more than a few problems with such a weapon, moral objections to nuclear weapons notwithstanding. Namely, what happens to the soldiers who fire it? 

There were two variations of the Davy Crockett, the M28 and the M29. According to the U.S. Army Historical Foundation, the M28 and M29 fired an M388 nuclear bomb out to a range of between 1.25 miles and 2.5 miles. 

Dangerous at both ends

Unlike conventional recoilless rifles which were loaded from the breech (rear of the weapon), the Davy Crockett operated more like an old cannon or musket (fitting the Davy Crockett namesake) and loaded from the muzzle. If you were a soldier tasked with operating a Davy Crockett and you fired it, you immediately ran into two very large problems. The first being that you just fired a nuclear weapon in combat and potentially lit off the powder keg that may develop into World War III. Secondly, a nuclear bomb (that you fired) just detonated a little over a mile away and you are sitting entirely exposed to all that entails. 

Official United States Army battle doctrine had soldiers firing the Davy Crockett from entrenched positions or from the back of a Jeep so you can make a speedy escape. However, "hope for the best" and "don't look directly at the atomic fireball" aren't exactly the best ways to avoid injury. Really, the Davy Crockett could be just as dangerous to the user as the target. Fortunately, the weapon was never used in combat and it was retired in 1971. Although it was successfully test-fired once in 1962 in Nevada.

The weapon was, however, a prominent plot point of the video game Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. The villain of the game Soviet Colonel Yevgeny Volgin fires a Davy Crockett during a climactic segment of the story. It's better that this weapon's use in combat stayed fictional.